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The Albuquerque airport has an ambiance all its own. Wooden chairs with leather seats fill the waiting areas. They are stiff and uncomfortable as hell, but no one would consider changing them because they have that "Southwest chic." Accents of turquoise and terra cotta set this airport apart from the look-alike terminals in other cities. As a lifelong resident of this southwestern city, my memories are of my brothers and myself as kids sitting on a low adobe wall, watching planes take off and land on Sunday afternoons. Coming home again makes my throat feel a little tight.
Emotion aside, if I'd known what lay in store for me within the next few days, I would've probably stayed on the plane.
The 737 rolled to a slow stop. There was a distinct chunk as the jetway connected. Sleepy passengers moved slowly, gathering belongings. I unfastened my seat belt. The remnants of my last pain killer were wearing off, and my head began to throb.
It was after ten o'clock and only a handful of people waited. They stood in an eager clump. Eager to meet loved ones, or eager to be back home in bed, I couldn't say. My brother, Ron, waited for me. He wore a muted plaid shirt, scuffed brown roper boots, and his straw Stetson, which he favors because it hides the fact that his hair is thinning on top. His faded Levi's bore permanent creases across the front and a whitened wallet-sized square on the right rear pocket. I hadn't seen him in ten days, and it seemed that his gut was perhaps a little less obvious over the top of his silver belt buckle. Ron dieting?
"Hey, kiddo, how was Hawaii?" He reached out to take my carry-on bag.
"It was murder." I could hear the tiredness in my own voice. We trailed the straggling crowd toward the escalators.
"I'll bet. All that lounging on the beach, all those mai-tais. Rough life."
"I meant that literally. It was murder." I lifted my hair in back to give him a glimpse of the fourteen stitches at the base of my skull.
"Charlie, what happened?"
"I'll tell you about it later," I promised. This would take longer than a walk through the airport would allow. "What's new around here?" I asked.
Did I imagine it or did he actually blush?
"Ronnnn . . . ?"
"Well . . . " He was blushing.
"It's a woman, isn't it? Tell me, or I'll . . . I'll . . . I don't know." I moved slightly ahead of him, and turned around, walking backward so I could watch his face. Ron has a stubborn streak a mile long that won't allow him to let his little sister push him around. He would stall a while longer just to make it clear that telling me was his idea, not mine. I fell back in step with him and kept quiet.
"Her name is Vicky." His voice started out quietly, but I could hear the enthusiasm grow as he talked. "She's pretty and has such a bubbly personality. We have so much in common, although she is a little younger than me."
"How little?" Ron is thirty-six, divorced, father of three. Responsible, dependable, but a prize catch?
"We met at Denim and Diamonds," he continued, "and we really hit it off, right from the start."
Picked up a girl in a bar? Really, Ron, in this day and age, where is your caution? I didn't have to say it; he got the message from the look I flashed him.
"I know, I know."
We arrived at the baggage carousel just as its obnoxious horn started whonking. Two little kids scurried off the stainless steel edge where they had been balancing on tip-toe. The crowd was pushy, it was late, and my head throbbed. I let Ron watch the bags revolve around the giant silver lazy Susan. I took a seat to the side, on a slatted wooden bench that dug into my butt in strange and painful ways.
I had only one suitcase and luckily it was among the first to come off the line. Ron was gentleman enough to carry it for me toward the parking garage.
"I can't wait for you to meet Vicky," he said, as he started his Mustang convertible. "She's really vivacious and fun-loving. I think you two might have lots to talk about."
I made some polite noises, but truthfully, I was beat and in no mood to talk about Vicky. There was a time when I could travel for days, eat rich food, stay up three nights in a row, and still go to work the next morning. No more. I was ready to get home, settle in, and pop another of my pain killers.
"Did you check in with Gram?" I asked.
"I sure did. Called every day and stopped by twice," he assured me.
"How was Rusty?"
"Rambunctious as ever."
I'd left my sixty pound dog in the care of my ninety pound, eighty-six year old neighbor. I wondered which of them would be happier to see me by now. I only hoped Rusty hadn't shed too much hair, lifted his leg on her begonias, or otherwise made her life stressful during the last week.
Ron successfully guided us through the low ceilinged airport parking garage. We emerged to a clear night, which was probably full of stars, except that there were too many bright lights around the airport to see them. I let myself sink back against my seat, the cool desert night air streaming through my hair and easing my headache, while he joined the sparse flow of traffic on I-25. Fifteen minutes later, we pulled into my driveway.
I'm probably one of the few thirty-year-old people anywhere these days who still lives in her childhood home. They called it a ranch style house back then, white brick with a shallow pitched roof. The three bedrooms, two baths, spacious living room, and big airy kitchen are really more than Rusty and I need, but a modern little box in an upscale part of town wouldn't come with the fifty-foot sycamores in the back yard, or my mother's Peace roses, whose canes are now thick as small tree trunks.
The living room lamp glowed behind the front drapes, operated by a timer, just as I'd left it. Ron carried my bag inside for me.
"You gonna feel like coming in tomorrow?" he asked. He wanted to ask about the cause of my fourteen-stitch headache, but refrained.
"I'll be fine," I assured him. "Some food and a good night's sleep are what I need right now."
"Okay, see you there."
Right now, I wanted to see Rusty. Without bothering to carry my suitcase to the bedroom, I headed for the back door. I'd no sooner switched on the back porch light than I saw the one next door come on. Elsa Higgins, Gram to me and my brothers, was obviously watching for me, probably anxious to get to bed. Leaving my back door standing open, I followed the well-worn path to the break in the hedge between our two properties. I had not quite made it to the edge of her porch, when the big red-brown energy machine bounded out. His thick tail whipped my legs and he rubbed against me, covering my hands with slobbery kisses.
He grinned at me with that special smile of his that people frequently take for a snarl. With most people, I just let them think that.
Elsa stood in her doorway, looking smaller and more frail than I remembered. She lives alone, cleans her own house, plants a garden every summer, and makes lap rugs for the "old people" at her church. She's feisty and opinionated, and I want to be just like her when I grow up. She's been next door to me all my life, and saved my ass more than once since I lost my parents in a plane crash my junior year in high school. I wasn't sure whether I detected a certain amount of relief in her expression as she watched Rusty and me reunite.
"How was the trip, Charlie?"
"Fine. I brought you something, but I'll have to unpack to find it." I walked a bit closer to her, staying just far enough back that I wouldn't have to get invited in. "How about coming over for breakfast in the morning? I'll tell you all about it then."
That seemed fine with her. She's not much of a night person, anyway. Rusty and I headed back through the hedge. I was starving, and would have loved a plate of Pedro's sour cream chicken enchiladas, but I couldn't summon up the energy to get in the Jeep and drive the six blocks just now. The long flight and my throbbing head had taken a lot out of me. The only milk in the fridge smelled ten days old, so I settled for a bowl of granola with yogurt on top instead. Rusty flopped out on the kitchen floor, his brief moment of joy at my arrival long over. For him, it was like I'd never been gone. They say dogs have no sense of time. It must be true — he acts the same way if I walk out to the mailbox.
I rechecked all the windows and doors, then dragged my suitcase down the hall to my bedroom. I'd save the real unpacking for morning. Right now, I only wanted a shower and some sleep. After emerging from the steamy bathroom, I took one of my prescription painkillers and climbed between the cool sheets. Rusty took up his usual post on the rug at the foot of my bed. I slept like a dead person until the light coming through my window got my attention about seven.
Excerpted from Partnerships Can Kill by Connie Shelton. Copyright © 1997 by Connie Shelton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.